MELBOURNE – Being frozen out at the Queensland Reds for a whole season looks to have been a blessing in disguise for former Australia flyhalf Quade Cooper, who rekindled his love for rugby away from the spotlight and found a welcoming home at the Melbourne Rebels.
With rave reviews penned in the wake of his first match for the Rebels, and pundits tipping a third World Cup appearance for Australia’s most polarising player, however, the enigmatic 30-year-old may once again find himself thrust into the limelight.
Playing his first Super Rugby game in 19 months, Cooper revived his celebrated halfback partnership with former Reds cohort Will Genia, and delivered silver service for his new teammates in their season-opening 34-27 win over the Brumbies in Canberra on Friday.
While maintaining that his focus rests completely on the Rebels, Cooper hopes to do more to convince Wallabies coach Michael Cheika and incoming Director of Rugby Scott Johnson that he deserves a ticket on the plane to Japan.
“I think that every person who plays rugby in Australia wants to be able to represent their country, wants to wear a starting jersey for their country,” the 70-Test playmaker told Reuters in an interview after training on Tuesday.
“I’m no different, but in terms of my focus, it’s not at all on any of that. It’s about playing good football here and enjoying my football, and I feel like I’m doing both of those.
“If Scott Johnson feels that I’m up to it or I deserve to be in the squad, that’s a conversation that I’ll have with him over the course of the year. But if not, I’m having a hell of a time in Melbourne…” he added.
From an outsider’s perspective, 2018 might have seemed a grim year for the New Zealand-born pivot.
New Reds boss Brad Thorn, the former All Blacks hard man, refused to select him, so Cooper ended up in third-tier club rugby in Brisbane.
His exile from the Reds, where he played 118 games and had a key role in their maiden Super Rugby title in 2011, would have stung, yet it ended up feeling like a year of growth.
Cooper enjoyed reconnecting with his first team, Souths, while finding comfort in the gym with old friends, including All Blacks centre Sonny Bill Williams.
“I’m grateful for everything that (Souths) did. They sort of gave me a sense of love for the game in a different way. It definitely was refreshing, because there was a lot of things going on at Queensland,” he said.
“As hard as people were trying to make it for me (at the Reds), I had a great time.
“One thing I learnt over the last year is about the people who you surround yourself with. I was very fortunate to have Sonny Bill. As soon as everything happened, I spent a month with him training, getting in shape.”
Cooper was one of three Wallabies forced out at the Reds to find new homes in Super Rugby this year, with inside centre Karmichael Hunt picked up by the Waratahs and prop James Slipper now at the Brumbies.
Hunt was moved on after being arrested on a drug possession charge for the second time in three years, while Slipper tested positive for cocaine twice in four months.
Cooper was at peace with his own enforced sabbatical, but also glad to turn his back on his home state Queensland.
The Dave Wessels-coached Rebels, with their roster of emigre players battling to build respect in a rugby backwater, suit him down to the ground.
“I don’t think I’ll be moving home after I finish my contract here,” he said. “I think I might look at finding a house or something like that.
“I feel I’ve been very fortunate with the path I’ve had.
“Obviously through adversity, you always become a stronger person. I’ve faced a fair few hurdles and roadblocks over the past four years, the last 18 months especially.
“And I’m 100 percent better for it.”